A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


This month’s theme at the Samarya Center where I practice yoga is tapas, a Sanskrit word meaning “heat.” In various traditions, it’s associated with austerity that leads to spiritual healing.

While the rest of the country bakes, it’s cold and cloudy in Seattle this Julyuary. However, I am hot.

I don’t mean sexy. I mean hot.

I’ve added camel pose and three sun salutations (I’ll do anything to get the sun to come out in Seattle—well, almost anything) to my morning yoga routine.

I haven’t done camel pose since neurosurgery five years ago, but Anna, my yoga teacher for my weekly one-on-one yoga therapy session, led me through the pose last week.

“Stand on your knees. Arch your back. Hold your ankles if you can.”

I did, and something in me opened that has long been closed. I felt a burst of heat that stayed with me for a couple of hours.

Anna and Dawn, who teaches my new class (my first yoga class since surgery) also led me through sun salutations, a series I haven’t done since surgery, either.

I think that sun salutations are to the sun in the sky, but with this series my inner sun glows, and I heat up.

If you’ve gone through hot flashes, you know the heat that I mean.

If you haven’t gone through hot flashes but have visited the sword maker’s home in Ethiopia, you know the heat. In the sword maker’s one-room home a constant fire to sharpen the blades burns.

If you haven’t experienced either of those but have travelled to the Ecuadoran jungle in the summer heat, you know this heat.

If you haven’t experienced any of this heat, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you’ve been in a Native American sweat lodge. I hear they’re hot, too.

None of these experiences connect for you? I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, but if you can think of an experience that made you so hot that your lungs gasped for air, I’d love to know what it was.  

This heat radiates through my whole body. Well, everything except my feet, which are impervious to warmth.

This heat energizes me and warms me. I’m not napping as often.
I have so much energy that I stayed at dinner with Susan and Rod for two and a half hours last night.

(Austerity has also been part of this practice for me: for example, instead of getting my own hot fudge sundae with coconut, chocolate chunk ice-cream, the three of us shared.)

I’m healing.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Minor Miracles

Raised as a good Southern girl, I know that talking (or writing) about bodily functions is inappropriate.
But I just have to tell you about my recent healing, and to do that I have to tell you about my boogers.

Since radiation two years ago, I have had mucus in my nose but no boogers. In the last few days, however, I have felt like I have bottle caps, with their raggedy metal edges, in my nostrils.

Boogers! I’ve had to blow the little bottle caps out of my nose!

You probably haven’t noticed that I haven’t had boogers, nor do I hope you will notice that my boogers are back. I hope that this minor miracle will not be obvious  to you.

My primary losses are obvious. When you see me, you know that I struggle with balance as I walk with my pretty wooden cane. You see that I do not see very well. If we socialize for more than two hours, you see that I struggle with fatigue when I lie down on a nearby couch.

These losses affect my life more than the legion of others that I notice, but it’s still a little weird for my right upper lip to lift like it’s tied to a marionette string or for a high tone in my right ear to obscure anything I might otherwise hear.

It’s weird that my left foot is often blue and cold. It’s weird that I might think of a word like “bifurcate” but not the word “split.”

I could go on and on. It’s weird, and kind of interesting, being me.

Lately, though, sometimes part of me heals in one of these ways that you would never notice, but I do.

The healing amuses me and gives me hope. What might heal?

The healing also teaches about the miracle that is my body. Though some things don’t work anymore, a lot of things do. My fingernails still grow, for example, and my right elbow bends. That’s amazing.

I’m pretty sure I’ll always live with some of these deficits, which is a bummer, but my body is still trying to heal, which is amazing. (Maybe that’s why I still need to sleep so much.)

As a kid, I read a book about Cory Ten Boom,  a Christian under arrest, as I remember it, in Nazi Germany. I remember that black flies pestered her and her ilk, and at a prayer meeting, she insisted that they pray for the flies.

That night, they would have been caught praying were it not for the guards being bugged off by the flies.

Cory Ten Boom was thankful for the flies, and I am thankful for my boogers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Crying and Testifying

Two men cried. Ann cried. One man testified.

Saturday, we served shrimp tacos to eleven people from our church community who bought the dinner at an auction.

We do some event like this every year, and we love it. There’s always a mix of people we know well, people we don’t know so well and like a lot, and people we stretch our memories to recognize when we see them out of context.

We started on the deck with drinks (alcoholic and not) and fancy appetizers that Ann made. It was one of those lovely Seattle afternoons where the sun glows warmly after 6 pm and there’s a cool breeze. Our resident hummingbird darted from flower to flower.

As guests came down the path to the deck, several stopped to pick a warm raspberry. My friend Terry, who has moved with his wife Marcia to a retirement community (aka resort) sat to my right. Mary Ellen’s husband Doug, whom I don’t know well and sits in the back in church, sat to my left.

Terry shared with me a few stories from his early teaching, in the days before he turned Republican (very nice Republican) businessman:

“I drove to a student’s home to talk with his mom about hygiene concerns because he smelled so bad that other students wouldn’t sit by him or interact with him. Because it was a Saturday, I drove my convertible pulling the boat for waterskiing.

“I kept driving up and down the road, and I could not find the address. Finally, a woman came through the weeds in a field and waved me down. That was his mother. She and her nine children lived in a car on the lot.

“I said, ‘please get in the car, and we can talk here.’ I felt uncomfortable about my boat and fancy car, but there it was. She said, ‘It’s about my son’s hygiene, isn’t it?’ We don’t have a place for him to bathe and I can’t get him to go to the river.’

Terry remembered that the school had showers in the locker room and arranged for the student to shower at school each morning. He remembered the effect: “That child came regularly to school. He made friends. He performed better academically.” (At this Terry gave the so-so motion with his hand). “He carried himself differently. I’ve never forgotten it. What he and his family were going through just wasn’t right.”

At this, Terry’s voice broke, and he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry I broke up like that,” he said. I wasn’t sorry. Tears seemed like the right response to me.     

Terry and I became a unit in this conversation, closed to the others around us. To my left, Doug was sometimes quiet and sometimes chatted amiably with the other guests. I hoped he felt welcome, but I couldn’t figure out how to invite him into this intense conversation.

We all traveled inside, to the dining room, for dinner as Ann put the shrimp and peaches on the grill. During dinner, we mostly talked as a larger group. Terry asked me, “How’s your resurrected father?”

Terry, Marcia, Ann and I laughed, and Marcia explained to the group that, eight years ago, in a real-life version of the game telephone, Terry had gotten confused about which Mary’s father died (We have a lot of Marys in my church—not my dad). Terry, however, thought my dad had died. He and Marcia had talked about how healthy Dad had seemed at my fortieth birthday just a month ago, and Marcia had said a prayer of concern at church the next Sunday.

(Ann and I had not gone to church that Sunday, but I did get a call from the minister asking, “How is your father?” and telling me about Marcia’s prayer. I called Marcia to clear it all up and told Dad the story when I called him later that day. I thought it was hilarious. Dad did not think it was funny.)

Terry reminded all of us that for a long time he was the sole Republican at our church, but as he got to know people he moved increasingly left and is now a Democrat.

I talked about how my parents, too, had changed in their attitudes towards me being a lesbian. (They didn’t like it at first, but after they saw Ann’s and my relationship as I was healing from neurosurgery, my mom noticed especially that I was happiest that month when Ann was in the hospital room. She also noticed how attentive Ann was to me and said, “It’s a good thing you’re not with a man.” I thought to myself, “Yep. Wow.”)

Many of us talked about the ways that we and others had changed because of relationships with people different than us. Jerry told a powerful story about him and his dad not communicating for a year after Jerry came out, and he remembered the day when his dad told him he loved him. Jerry choked up here. Again, the right response, it seemed to me.

Doug was quiet but present in the conversation. I was concerned that he might feel left out of the conversation.

Guests starting making noises about leaving, and Mary Ellen went to the restroom. As people started to stand, Doug said, “I’d like to say something before we all leave, but I’d to wait for Mary Ellen to be here.”

Everyone settled back into their chairs, and when Mary Ellen returned, we all looked to Doug. “I’m a pretty conservative guy,” he started, “but what I have heard tonight has changed me. I have never heard stories like this. I want you to know that this night has changed me. Thank you for that.”

Ann cried as Doug spoke.

I thought, “Yep. Wow.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Open Windows

Suzanne, my instructor for a one-to-one session for my new Mac, shared an analogy for the way that she has needed to change since her life took a significant turn: "At first, I was like a fly banging against a closed window as I tried to get back to my old life. Finally, I thought, 'There must an open window somewhere,' and I went to find an open window into my new life."
Much of my life since brain tumors is about re-envisioning my life as it unfolds, about finding open windows. My new life is about learning that I am not in control and seeking the grace and faith to live a life meaningful to me and others by finding ways to live in the joy that is life's miracle. My challenge is to see the amazing beauty, the amazing grace, in the fragility of it all.
I seek not only to find my new room, but also to find myself. When so much about me has changed, I wonder, who am I? Am I the same person as I was before brain tumors? As I wonder, I find my voice of a storyteller, a voice I met as a child but abandoned in my busy-ness, and now I find a new voice, my poet voice:
Who am I?
The nine-months-and-five-days child of a nurse and a doctor,
I am from Grady hospital’s White wing,
I am from a house on a hill,
from copperheads on a suburban acre.

I am from the magic word and the golden rule,
from “Pack your days, like your suitcases, full”,
from “Have you done your homework yet?" and
from Mahalia at Christmas: “O Holy Night.”

And I am a child of the seventies,
of Watergate and add-a-beads.

I am a woman in love
with a woman.

I am an immigrant in the land
of drizzle and double tall lattes.

I am a survivor:
two brain tumors, three surgeries, six weeks of radiation, one car crash.

I am the woman down the street
who walks with a cane.

My student Rosa said
that I am like a white rose.
I stand for peace and justice
and stuff like that.
And I am, well, White.

I am a partner and a daughter,
a sister and a cousin,
a niece and an auntie,
a teacher and an adventurer,
a stumbler,
a friend.

In my dreams, I transform.

I am a Black man,
Running through the weary world’s white arches.
My feet softly touch the ground,
Dreadlocks tap my back in rhythm with my run.

Awake, I ache to feel the soft earth beneath my running feet,
To feel my dreadlocks tap my back.

I ache to run beyond the boundaries
Of who I am and where I’m from.
I think about whether these tumors have changed who I am. They have certainly changed my life. I am taking a different journey than I had planned to take.
In my core, however, I continue to love what I have so loved. This magnificent world is a place of pain, but it is also a place of grace. My spirit is strong—and must be strong—to notice the world’s beauty. My faith cradles me. My primary response to the world is one of gratitude.

Look Homeward Angel

I grew up a Southern girl who didn’t fit in the South. Other Southerners noticed this, too. From time to time, someone would tell me, “You don’t seem like you’re from here.”

The only option I could think of was being a Yankee, so I imagined that I would move to the Northeast. I didn’t think beyond the Mississippi River.

Seattle’s my home now. It felt like home the first day I visited here, as the April rain fell onto the watery city and grey skies felt like a low ceiling.

“This is a pritty [sic] city!” I kept exclaiming. Strange. I love the sun, and I love this city. For me at the age of 48, Seattle is home.

I moved away from North Carolina when I graduated from college in 1986, and I’ve never been tempted to move back. When I visit, however, I connect with it like a place that I have that mysterious soul-land connection to, a place that was once home.

On a recent trip to Western N.C., Ann and I land first in the Atlanta airport. Within minutes of entering the concourse, I overhear, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes ma’am” and “Yes, ma’am.” The sound of home.

I also hear a falsetto, “H-a-a-a-a-a-y” and think that maybe one of my mother’s sisters is here, but this Southerner’s just a soul-sister.

As Ann and I wait in line for dinner at Chili’s, the young woman behind me tells her father, “It’s been 22 days since I smoked my last cigarette.” I turn around and give her my menu in celebration.

Our friend Mahan, who was the minister in our Southern Baptist church when I was in college, picks us up at the Asheville airport. Though our plane is three hours late, Mahan greets us as if he has just arrived.

As we drift to sleep in our hostess Janice’s mother’s bed, we feel the mountain breeze and hear cicadas through the open window.

We visit my high school friend May and her family as well as her sister Kirin and Kirin’s family, who live about fifty yards from one another.

Kirin’s husband (and Mahan and Janice’s son) Mark is researching raising cattle so that he doesn’t have to mow their thirteen acres.

Mark tries to involve May’s husband Paul, and though Paul’s genial, he’s not sticking his toe in that pond.

Friday night, Ann and I rock in rocking chairs by the edge of the yard and watch fireflies, amber—and a few red—sparks that flit in the dusk.

The next morning, a wild turkey lands outside the window, but we don’t shoot it.

That night, Ann and I and May and Paul and their daughter Ella join my elementary school friend Heather and her family for have brick oven pizzas (cooked by Heather’s husband Michael in the brick oven that he built) and the adults drink the beer that Michael brewed using the hops that he grew by the driveway. These are modern Southern families.

We’re all connected, as Southerners are: Heather, May, Kirin and I grew up in the same church where Mahan, Mark’s dad, was later minister. May, Paul and I went to the same high school. Now the families’ girls Ella and Madelaine are best friends. That’s how it is in the South: generations of connections.
From time to time, a North Carolinian apologizes for North Carolina's recent vote to "preserve marriage as an institution between a man and a woman." These are Southerners, but they're not bigots. (I keep trying to tell my Pacific Northwest friends that the South is more complex than they realize.)

Sunday, Ann and I join Mahan and Janice for a Quaker meeting, (some things have changed), and then Ann drives the two of us to Brevard to visit my colleague Christine from when I first taught in Dallas, 26 years ago.

Though Christine’s a Texan and not a Southerner (there’s a difference), she too is Southernly (a new word) hospitable.

We eat and drink wine together, tour the artsy town, visit the graveyard angel of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and visit Carl Sandburg’s plantation-style mansion (a funny place for a Socialist to live, but it is beautiful, so I can’t blame him…he has left behind over seventeen thousand books and a gazillion magazines).

We also hike through the lovely, rolling Smokey Mountains. (Wordsworth would have liked this hike by a gurgling stream and its waterfalls. Wordsworth would have found a home in the American South.)

As we fly away, Ann says to me, “You have a lot of nice friends.”

Why yes, I do, and did. They help me connect to my childhood home and to see that it is good.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dear Voter,

As a woman who has had two rare brain tumors and who now lives with disabilities that have made it impossible for me to continue in my 26 year career in high school education, I celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision upholding what Mitt calls “Obamacare.” (I call it “Marycare” and “Kathycare.”  Obama, like Mitt, will be cared for if he gets sick, so it’s not Barackcare and it’s not Mittscare. We the people-- who are sick but are not millionaires-- are the ones who need the care. )

Following the Supreme Court decision, Mitts’ immediate comment that “If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to replace President Obama,” raised my anxiety and my commitment to re-electing Obama.

My commitment is not to one cause, even though this cause is so important to my life. My commitment is to Obama’s understanding of The American Dream in contrast to Mitts’.

 Mitt seems to see The American Dream much like F. Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby, a dream of making an obscene amount of money (by at least bending if not breaking the rules of economic fairness) and spending that sum lavishly. (A thoughtful reading, by the way, reveals that Fitzgerald saw the danger of this kind of life even as he lived it.)

Mitt hasn’t said a lot about the American dream. In March, he said, “Nothing is more fragile than a dream. It’s essential to the genius of America that we developed a culture that nurtures these dreams and dreamers, that honors them and, yes, that rewards them. There’s always been something uniquely brilliant about America.” –Mitt Romney, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhA8mpUljpQ

Mitts’ reference to “rewards” attempts to defend a system that pays some people, like him, obscene amounts of money (and does not tax his winnings like it taxed my earnings as a public school teacher working with students living in poverty.)
The inscription on the Statue of Liberty proposes a different dream, a dream where the world’s poor and tired—and for heaven sake’s at least America’s poor and tired—can enter into “the golden door,” a symbol, I believe, for hope for a life free of hunger and poverty. And free of worries that a health crisis may drive any one of us who is not a millionaire into the huddled masses of hungry and poor.

Mitt won’t change his mind. He’s made this issue part of a presidential platform that calls for an America for the increasingly small number of wealthy people.

I am asking you, perhaps a temporarily-abled voter, to take a stand for an American Dream where all of us can participate in an economy that allows each of us to live a healthy life.

 I can’t afford for Mitt to be president. I don’t think our country can either.

 I know that I don’t usually write politically, but this time I have to speak up. Thanks for thinking about it.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What's a Jaguar?

The Edwards family has a lifetime minister (not really like a prison sentence, I hope), and our minister, The Good Reverend Mahan Siler, picked Ann and me up at the Asheville airport on Thursday night. We would be guests in Mahan's and his wife Janice's home for much of our week in Western North Carolina.

The Silers are good people: wise and kind, generous and humble. As Mahan drove to the top of their steep drive in his Honda Hybrid, a practical and environmentally friendly vehicle that one might expect of the family minister, his headlights glanced another car in their garage.

I could have sworn that I saw a white convertible Jaguar, but my eyes often fool me.

"Nah. Couldn't be," I said to myself and continued our conversation about the flight and the weather.

Up went the garage door, and there it was: a 1995 white convertible Jaguar with tan leather trim in excellent condition. Well, I'll be. Yes. "That's a Jaguar," I say to Mahan.

"I'll let Janice tell that story," he says, laughing. "It's really hers to tell."

A story, in North Carolina, is a gift. Telling one's story is a right that other Southerners know to respect. Mahan was not putting me off. He was being mannerly.

Ann and I settled into our guest room with a lovely view of the rolling Appalachian mountains. In the night we heard dogs bark in the distance and in the morning heard the mountain birds chirp. In a whirr, a flock of wild turkeys (no, not the bourbon) landed just outside our window. Mahan and Janice called us up for breakfast on their porch.

After niceties about the flight from Seattle, I asked Janice about the Jaguar.

"We-ell," laughed Janice, "When we retired, I made a bucket list. I've always wanted to get a convertible, so I decided if I was going to get one, this was the time.

"I looked around town and drove a few, but none was right. We ha-ed a good friend visitin' from the beach, and I told her about my search.

"'We-ell,' she said, 'I'd like to sell you mine. A woman sold it to me for half the blue book price and I'd like to sell it to you for half its price now.'

"I never even looked at it," said Janice, "but I trusted her. We sat right here on this screened-in porch," Janice pointed to two loungers off to the side of our breakfast table, "and we made the deal. We shook hands on it."

Mahan spoke up at this point. "After our friend left," he said, " I said to Janice, 'Do you know what a Jaguar is?'"

"We-ell," said Janice, "I didn't know, so he showed me one on the computer."

"I just love it. I get lots of comments. The other day, I came out of the grocery store and a man was standin' by my car. Just standin' there."

"He said, 'Can I just touch your car?'"

"We-ell, he did. And he seemed happy. He said, 'Thank you, ma'am.'"